A couple days ago, I posted about the cool, new building toy, GoldieBlox, created by engineer, Debbie Sterling, to help girls get interested early in the profession. Since my post, I’ve read more about the toy.
At the center of Sterling’s creation are several strategies for getting girls to build: engage them with a story, challenge them to build with a problem-solving purpose, use materials that are warm or soft to the touch (no metal) and have shapes with curved edges, and presented in colors that American girls in the year 2012 tend to be attracted to. The toy set includes the story of its heroine, “GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine” (available as a book or iOS app), five character figurines (Goldie’s “friends”), and building kit that includes plastic elements and a ribbon…
Sterling’s basic conceit — that by playing to girls’ inclination to help and imbuing their designs with practical purpose she can get them designing and building — is echoed in the work of Christine Cunningham, a vice president of the Museum of Science in Boston and director of the Engineering is Elementary program. Like Sterling, Cunningham has found that if you embed an engineering dilemma in a story, girls will have more interest in figuring out the challenge. For example, she says, kids’ kits for electrical engineering, which is one of the most heavily male of the different kinds of engineering, tend to ask kids to build circuits to make a light turn on or a fan blow air. When Cunningham set about to redesign an electrical-engineering activity with girls in mind, she and her team embedded it in a story about a girl living on a ranch who needs to keep a trough filled with water for the baby lambs…
Does it somehow undermine the goals of gender equality and girls’ empowerment to engage them in engineering by buying into and relying on so many stereotypes about girls in the first place? Cunningham says we need to keep in mind, by the time they’ve reached the age of five (the youngest age GoldieBlox is recommended for), many girls will already have well developed gender identities, and oftentimes that identity will be quite, for lack of a better word, girly. “How can we take the places that girls are and develop the same kinds of innovative problem-solving skills? … We’re very much based in, ‘what is the reality of the now?’ And how do you work with that? Are there small ways you can push the meter to bring in these kinds of skills?”
I want to address the issue of gender stereotypes in more detail, because in my last post, I only made one reference in parentheses:
One thing I LOVE about this toy is that Sterling created a narrative with a female protagonist around the activity of building. While I don’t necessarily agree with her reason for this tactic (“Boys like to build, girls like to read”) I do think that there are not enough stories starring females that revolve around action, adventure, and building.
So to go further with this. The whole stereotype that girls are verbal and boys like math is bullshit. That is not to say it doesn’t exist, but that it is both culturally created and more myth than reality.
By the way, Sterling doesn’t dispute this. She doesn’t seem much concerned with why the gender gap exists. She just wants to bridge it.
A couple things I want to say about this female verbal/ male spatial skills. Number one: sexism is passed down generation to generation. I just had my parent-teacher conference. My daughter’s fourth grade teacher told me that her writing skills are great. “Now lets talk about her math,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve seen this.” She then pointed to a series of questions about “mode” and “median” that my daughter had answered incorrectly. Actually, I hadn’t seen it. Not really. I went on to tell the teacher that I write, I like to write. I go over my daughter’s writing, I teach her about topic sentences and paragraph structure. When she writes a story, I tell her it’s got to have a problem, called the plot. I’ve taught her that her main character has to go through some kind of transition. But when it comes to math, all I do is see if she’s filled in the blank. I have no interest in math. I don’t like math. My first reaction when my daughter’s teacher showed us that she wasn’t “getting it” was to turn it over to my husband. He can do that. That’s what I did with soccer. And that’s not a bad option, but it’s not really overcoming the sexism.
My second point about this gender dichotomy is that it only exists, like all feminine skills, when it’s relegated to low status. Girls are artsy when it’s about construction paper and Elmer’s glue. But what about art as an occupation? Making big money, shows at the MOMA? Suddenly, art is for men. “Great” literature is predominantly by men and prizes awarded to writers are won by men. So how is that possible if women are the verbal ones? The same gender split is true with cooking, a girly activity for a child, but give it some status– a great restaurant in France, master chef on a TV show, males dominate again. My theory: calling girls artsy and readers is just another way we reinforce well-behaved, quiet girls.
Now for those little lambs girls want to save. Girls are no more kind-hearted or sweet than boys are. Girls do need a purpose and a narrative but boys do too. The gender difference is that boys pick up that narrative from the world around them, everywhere they look, males solve problems, save the world, act, and get to be heroes. Girls don’t see that story.
The reason I love Goldieblox is not the soft toys or the little lambs, but that Sterling creates a narrative with a female protagonist around a building toy. All of us– boys and girls, children and adults– frame our actions in stories.
I once took a class on forgiveness at Stanford, and the teacher, Fred Luskin, told us that in order to forgive, we must rewrite our story so that we are the heroes. Holding grudges happens when you are the victim in the story, and you repeat and repeat that same narrative in your head.
We are all creating narratives in our heads all the time, constantly. Unfortunately, way too many stories out there show females as victims and stuck on the sidelines. Thank you to Debbie Sterling for being innovative and changing the narrative.